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Thursday, 3 October 2013

“The shining city on the hill” desperately needs someone to put the light on again... or how you can cook soup from stones.

Look out world take a good look
What comes down here
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to Hell

People, who know me for a longer time, know that I’m neither religious nor very chauvinistic or a believer in any kind of exceptionalism whatsoever. 

The only thing that I believe in is that most people have a desire to work hard and have fun while doing it, in exchange for enough money to have a good life from it. How much money is indeed enough and what life is exactly a good life, differs from person to person.

On top of that, I believe that most people have the will to do good towards each other, without per sé looking at their own benefits first. For that matter, I am a typical Theory Y person.

Nevertheless, I know that there are circumstances – irrespective whether these are religiously, historically or economically inspired – that people don’t want to do good to each other. To the contrary, instead they want to destroy each other in a figurative or sometimes even all too litteral way, unfortunately.

The recent events in the Arab world (Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq) and Africa (Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Kenia and Nigeria) and the shooting incidents inside and outside the US show unfortunately, that the human race has an almost unlimited list of reasons, causes and ways to kill each other.

It is sometimes very hard for my thorough believe in the intrinsic goodness of people to not be shocked and shaken every now and then. I always try not to judge on ‘people at war’ before knowing the whole story behind their anger and outrage from inside out. I don’t believe in black and white; in the eternal goodness or wickedness of people.

Few things happen without a reason, but the reason might be very opaque to the objective viewer’s eyes. For that and for other reasons I have been quite reluctant to write about the current American political situation lately:
  • I know too little about it yet;
  • I know too little of the historic context in which things happened;
  • I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all European, as we have only just swept our own dead bodies under the rug. 
Nevertheless, the current political situation in the United States is akin to a head-to-head car collision waiting to happen, because neither of the drivers wants to give in first.

The only complicating factor is that not only the lives of the drivers are on the line, but also the (economic) lives of many of the viewers to the spectacle. The United States and its dollar belong to the economic and financial machinery of this world and when this machine halts, it can have grave consequences.

That is why many Europeans have been watching how the events unfolded in sheer astonishment and disbelieve and sometimes even with a misplaced sense of shame: 
  • How come that the ever optimistic, world-leading and gung ho Americans have managed to get caught in a political trap from which there seems no escape?!
  • How come that a splinter party within the GOP, like the Tea Party (often described in the European papers as ‘a bunch of political nitwits and idiots’), can cause so much political mayhem, driven by political visions and ideas that date back to the first US presidents and, perhaps, even the Mayflower?!
  • How come that wise and savvy bloggers, like Mike Shedlock (a genuine hero of mine throughout the credit crisis), have become so enraged and fundamentalistic about the US government, that they applaude the government shutdown and perhaps even the impact of not raising the debt ceiling, seemingly without thinking twice about the consequences?!
  • What the heck is wrong with Obamacare – apart from the fact that it covers too few health issues, in comparison with my own mandatory health insurance – and why do these kinds of laws always lead to a constitutional debate in the US?!  
  • Why are people not accepting that the US constitution is a document of more than twohundred years in age, which perhaps needs a little refurbishing to be contemporary again?! We have moved ahead since those days and we replaced our horse-and-carriage for something a little bit more modern, didn’t we?! So, shouldn’t we accept that our laws need some tuning too; even if it is the constitution?! 

And there is more: 
  • It is not a coincidence that Vladimir Putin – a Russian and not by a million miles the most democratic leader in the world – writes an Op-Ed to the New York Times, which is widely applauded in diplomatic and foreign policy circles, (in spite of the writer), and causes President Obama to make a 180 degrees U-turn about Syria in the process.
  • It is not a coincidence that the whole US government (including Congress) is left in shock-and-awe about how this could have happened and why they didn’t see it coming: their (former) archenemy beating them at their own turf with their own weapons of mass communication.
  • It is not a coincidence that President Dima Rousseff of Brazil denounced her visit to the United States, because she disagreed with the US policy towards telephone and internet tapping and economic espionage and probably with thousands of things more.
  • It is not a coincidence that paying taxes is almost considered ‘unconstitutional’ by some diehards and always leads to heated debates between proponents and opponents in the US.
  • It is not a coincidence that about 45 million Americans are living from foodstamps, while many, many more live from paycheck to paycheck. 
  • It is not a coincidence that Main Street’s misery is Wall Streets fortune, as a consequence of one of the most perverse incentives in the world; the worse the economy gets, the longer the quantitative easing (aka “free money for every rich investor”) programs endure.
  • It is not a coincidence that, while the American economy is shaky at best, the stock rates hit all-time records. 
  • It is surely not a coincidence that less than 15% of the Americans thinks that their interests are in good hands at congress.

Shortly summarized: what the heck is going on in the ‘shining city on the hill’, which seems more and more obscured every day? Somebody is desperately needed there to put the light back on!

Although I don’t know which solution is the best (i.e. most feasible) for the current political conundrum in the United States, I must think about the following story, which I read in my son’s schoolbook a short while ago.

It is called “stone soup”…

A hungry stranger is walking from door to door in a small town, asking for something to eat. Although most people are willing to give him something to eat, nobody has much to offer.

When he visits the last house in the village, the stranger says: “I know you can’t offer me anything to eat, but I hope you can lend me a cooking pan”. When asked why, the stranger states that he is going to cook “Stone Soup”:

He cooks a few gallons of water, puts three big stones in it and smells the water, like it is a delicacy.

Somebody asks him about the taste of stone soup and the stranger states that it might taste better with a few grams of salt in it. This person gets the salt for him.

The next villagers talking to the stranger get to hear that a few onions, carrots, potatoes and a few other vegetables wouldn’t hurt the taste either. Everybody has a few small things in his house and gets it for the stranger, curious for the taste of stone soup. 

Now the whole village starts to visit the stranger and his strange soup and they bring him some meat, pepper, nutmeg and other ingredients. The stranger adds everything to the soup and cooks it further. Now the soup is ready.

Everybody gets a cup of soup, tastes it and agrees that Stone Soup is a darn tasty, nourishing soup. All the villagers get fed by this soup, in spite of the fact that nobody had really enough to eat in his house.

The moral of this story, sticking out a mile is: if nobody puts the small, individual interests of people together and molds them into large, collective interests, then the needs of almost nobody are fulfilled, which causes a whole society to suffer.

However, if an independent party can mold these interests together, then the whole society (and not only the rich people) can flourish from it.

Thus we can learn three things from this story:
  1. the US government should act more like the stranger in this story and cook soup for the whole society, instead of handing the ingredients to a few benificiaries, including themselves.
  2. Everybody can offer his share to ‘the soup’ and irrespectable of the size of this share, it should always be welcomed.
  3. Not all strangers (i.e. governments) are bad for societies.
I wish my American friends and the American government much wisdom, self-sacrifice and decisiveness in the coming weeks, because ‘heck, do you need it these days’. 

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